The appeal of lavish period dramas that depict life in a bygone era is undeniable. But characters, opulent costumes, and plot twists aside, this particular genre is a crowd-pleaser because it offers the perfect type of escapism by inspiring wanderlust. And this is exactly the case with the new PBS series Hotel Portofino, which premieres on June 19. By Dobrina Zhekova
Hotel Portofino: A lavish period drama
As its name suggests, the six-episode period piece takes place in a fictional hotel in the coastal town of Portofino on the Italian Riviera. The plotline follows the lives of the Ainsworth family that has relocated from Britain to open an upscale hotel on the Italian coastline during the 1920s in search of a new beginning. Of course, romance, glamour, and mystery ensue. While the series discusses serious topics such as the rise of Nazism in Italy and the consequences of World War I, Hotel Portofino is also a celebration of all things Italian and the liberating influence of the country’s fascinating culture on the series’ characters. Filmed in Portofino as well as Opatija, on the north Adriatic coast of Croatia, the drama is a visual feast that features plenty of breathtaking shots from both destinations.
For example, we see the whitewashed building of the Portofino lighthouse perched at the edge of a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean; the Chiesa del Divo Martino, the 12th-century church located at the heart of Portofino; and Piazza Martiri Dell’Olivetta, the town’s famous main square backed by vibrant-hued houses and the scenic harbour.
“All these beautiful, incredibly enchanting places, which are famous around the world, are also [the places] where we, locals, long to be on weekends and to celebrate parties, weddings, etc,” executive producer Walter Iuzzolino told Travel + Leisure. Iuzzolino, who grew up in nearby Genova, added that when he started working on the series, he immediately jumped at the possibility of shooting in Portofino as the town has a “very specific look that is very hard to replicate.”
But that doesn’t mean securing filming permits from the local government was an easy feat. Quite the contrary. Portofino, which dates back to the 13th century when it was a quaint fishing village, became the go-to spot for Europe’s A-list crowd at the beginning of the 20th century and is still a famous retreat for celebrities and political luminaries, many of whom own vacation homes here.
So, naturally, when the Hotel Portofino filming crew showed up in September 2021 with cameras and drones in tow, not everyone was excited.
“There was a villa that belongs to Giorgio Armani. The castle next door is [designers Domenico] Dolce and [Stefano] Gabbana’s castle, and we were filming with a drone. So one of Giorgio Armani’s gardeners came out and was like, What are you doing here? He thought we were the paparazzi. It was a bit funny, and a bit surreal,” Iuzzolino said. Ultimately, however, the people from the town “opened their doors to us,” he added.
“They loved the story at the heart of it [the series]. And they loved the idea that we were celebrating the beauty of Portofino in history, that we’re looking at a time in history when Portofino wasn’t who it is today. It became more famous around that time.”
Surprisingly enough, the set for the fictional hotel that Bella Ainsworth (played by Natascha McElhone) and her family manage was located about 400 miles (643.73 km) east of Portofino, in Croatia.
“We were working with a Croatian production company, and they suggested looking into this specific part of the Croatian coastline, which is very similar to the coastline around Portofino, even down to the houses and architectural styles,” explained Matt Baker, writer and creator of the series. The town they had in mind was Opatija, a trendy resort spot that was once the summer playground of the rulers of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The interior hotel shots were filmed in a villa on the Lungomare promenade that overlooks the sea.
Baker explained that travel plays a central role in the family period drama as it portrays how its characters adapt to their new life and environment in Italy.
“This is a family that gets away looking for a fresh start in a new place. And I think the characters tend to divide into two camps. There are those who are open-minded to new experiences, and who are able to transform and discover something about themselves. [They] try to break free of some of the rules and attitudes that pretended to govern behaviours at that time. And then, on the other side, they’re the people I would consider the more conservative characters, who are the ones who are more inclined to have travel reinforce their prejudices,” he said.
“A piece of enjoyable escapism”
Having written the script during the second COVID-19 lockdown in the UK, Baker calls the series “a piece of enjoyable escapism” but he also points out that one of the features of period dramas is to remind people that “although the costumes were very different, the technology was very different, and the traditions were very different, people were still people 100 years ago, and a lot of the things that they experienced, a lot of the emotions they felt are relevant to us today.”
Hotel Portofino premieres Sunday, June 19, on PBS, and will be available to stream on all PBS platforms, including PBS.org, the PBS Video app, PBS Passport, and the PBS Masterpiece Prime Video Channel.
(This story first appeared on travelandleisure.com)